In my “Man up” post I said that a healthy alternative to appearing tough, was actually being meek. Is “meek” worth reviving as a cultural ideal?
Rhymes with Weakness
Meekness was once seen as a virtue. Most people today, however, see it as a character flaw. In sports, science, politics, business, and academia individuals are encouraged to be strong, intelligent, competitive, confident, assertive, extroverted, as well as good marketers and rhetoricians. And conversely they are encouraged NOT to be shy, meek, timid, weak, or hesitant.
Meekness in western Christian culture was for many years the hallmark of someone who was acting like Jesus. It was a good thing. I remember the phrase, “Jesus, meek and mild,” spoken and sung about in my Anglican church when I was a child. After my “born again” experience at age 15, the evangelical church I attended focused on the kingship of God, the Lordship of Jesus, and Jesus’ triumph over death. Despite the fact that Jesus had claimed to be the king of meekness, popular preachers downplayed this. They focused instead on his role as Son of God and returning apocalyptic judge of all human-kind. The two images were, for many years, impossible to reconcile. Was there a contradiction here, or a paradox?
What Jesus Said
The Gospel of Matthew (11:28-30) records Jesus’s words, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek (praǘs) and lowly (tapeinos) in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11:28-30.
praǘs, according to The Dictionary of New Testament Theology (DNTT), means friendly, mild, and gentle. It is a feminine adjective. The DNTT says praǘs and epieikes (equitable, fair, mild, gentle) represent character traits of a noble-minded wise person who remains composed in the face of insults, lenient when making judgments, and kind in the exercise of authority. A friendly, fair, gentle person.
These qualities appear often in ancient descriptions of the ideal ruler and in eulogies on men in high positions who did their jobs well. Aristotle is said to have considered meekness to be the happy mean between passion and lack of feeling.
The happy mean between passion and lack of feeling.
When we imagine a powerful CEO, the dictator of a country, the chief of a tribe, a military officer, or some similar power-god figure, we who must work or serve under such a person begin to understand the appeal of meekness.
We prefer a cool head to a hot head. With power goes great responsibility and one should wield such power with prudence and restraint.
This is what meekness used to mean. A meek person was “even-tempered.” Those who followed or served such a person looked forward to stability and growth. We may want “power god” leaders to be tough on our enemies, but we want them to be gentle on us.
Jesus was idealized as such a ruler. This was at a time when democracy was not wide-spread. People who rose to power, tended to stay there. The longer they did, the less empathy they had for those under them. This is now a scientifically validated phenomenon.
So the hope was for a leader who had a predisposition to meekness and therefore would not “lord it over” his subjects. The DNTT discusses in some length how meekness became a signature mark of a “real” Christian — i.e. one of the “fruits of the spirit,” – Galatians 5:22-23.
Helping Powerful People Stay Kind
Because powerful people lose empathy the longer they have power, some mechanism is needed to counteract this phenomenon if they are to remain responsive to those they lead, and a benefit to the community.
Science, for example, incorporated checks and balances into it’s methodology to prevent self-delusion and promote humility. In science, the shared submission to truth insures a constant questioning both of established theories, and of schools of thought.
Religious traditions usually stress the need for leaders to live modestly as models of humility. Socrates, Jesus, the Buddha, Gandhi, and many other wise or holy ones recognized the dangers of power and the need to follow a simple modest path of leadership.
Francis of Assisi is perhaps my favorite embodiment of this principle. I will be returning to Francis in a future post.
Too Sweet for Deadpool
These days, meekness, along with the other fruits of the spirit are seen as too sweet. For each of the old fruits we see instead a set of preferred tougher alternatives.
Here are some of the values I think have replaced the fruits of the spirit (the ones in brackets). Love (independence), joy (pleasure), peace (assertiveness), forbearance (sarcasm), kindness (shrewdness), goodness (cleverness), faithfulness (opportunistic), meekness (call people on their s***) and self-control (live the good life). None of these alternative values are “wrong” but the Christian vision of a person filled with the fruits of the spirit is not the same. And it is much too airy fairy and precious for most hard nosed, disillusions, cynical, nihilistic individuals in this post modern dark age.
It is much too airy fairy and precious for most hard nosed, disillusions, cynical, nihilistic individuals in this post modern dark age.
I don’t see things turning around soon. Witness the wild popularity of anti-hero Deadpool. Deadpool is the poster child of a generation. A misunderstood, tortured, sarcastic, crude, hedonistic, violent, pain-maven with a diseased perspective on almost everything. Deadpool copes with his pain by being sassy, aloof, sarcastic, and bitter.
Stan Lee is quoted as saying, “The thing about Deadpool that makes him so widely loved by fans everywhere is he’s like a real person.” Sure there are lots of people who feel they don’t fit in, can’t be vulnerable, and must keep up a facade, but Deadpool? Loved? Deadpool is a champion of innuendo and retribution. He brings everything down to the level of revenge and violence. I can honestly say I don’t know anyone like Deadpool.
The most charitable thing I can say is that it is likely that Deadpool is a reflection of our collective shadow, and as such, we need to do some collective shadow work. But the fans of the character will laugh at this as they retreat from real life into the familiar bunker of sarcasm.
Wounded Egos Despise Meekness
Which brings me back to meekness. Deadpool and his fans despise meekness. They laugh at diplomacy, chivalry, fair play, and optimism. They see it as naive and for suckers.
As soon as you start to get serious with these folks, as soon as you start to get “real” they tease you or change the subject. They use sarcasm as a form of aggression to push away matters of substance in favour of the ongoing chuckle-fest that never actually does anything about the pain and suffering the person feels and dishes out.
Deadpool and his fans are living in a kind of hell, and they kind of know they are, and they think it is kind of funny.
Jesus was not the king of sarcasm, yet he remains popular with the wounded and suffering. Deadpool’s brand is sarcasm, Jesus’s brand is meekness. Obviously I lean more towards the Jesus brand.
Champions and Heroes
According to the various versions of spiral dynamics, the red and blue memes are used by the majority of people on the planet. In politics, business, and religion, the leaders who appeal to brains running these memes clearly define enemies and right and wrong behaviour. People in the red and blue memes love this.
Having a common enemy and knowing what is good and bad, promote in-group loyalty and a sense of belonging. It also fosters outgroup hostility and fear. These, in the long run, create their own problems, but people who haven’t installed higher memes, don’t really know that. Or they don’t want to know that.
Despite the renaissance, the enlightenment, the rise of science, and the industrial and technological revolutions, the majority of people still deeply desire champions and heroes. According to the red and blue memes such champions and heroes are justified in using violence and retribution to keep the peace. As long at the violence and retribution is towards the enemy or some scapegoat, it can be justified.
Those operating from higher memes see the limitations of these solutions. They understand that too much power in the hands of power gods and law givers can threaten stability, the market, and progress.
Under the pressure of the red and blue memes, tribalism, shame systems, and revenge continue to dominate people’s thoughts, even while progress is made by some individuals and groups.
Most spiritual traditions retain stories and methods designed to move people to higher memes. Higher memes allow individuals to consider new perspectives and see connections and solutions not available at lower memes.
One of the strongest ideals from the higher memes is effective, non-coercive, action by individuals who have reached a level of development that allows them to let go of desires, striving, and clinging.
This ideal state is called by different names in different traditions. Meekness in the Christian tradition, de in the Taoist tradition, apatheia in the Stoic tradition, and dzogchen in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. I’m sure other traditions have similar ideas.
The Christian Tradition
The message in the famous Jesus quote above can be a bit impenetrable at first. Jesus says “here, slip into this yoke with me, I’ll do half the work, and you can learn how I handle the burden. It’s all about being non-reactive and properly low. I know you need a break. Just be a nobody for awhile.”
Peterson translates it this way: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
My friend Michael loves that phrase, “Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.” The first time he used it, I knew it was what I wanted. There are two difficulties, however. First, It’s difficult to know if Jesus really shares my load. Maybe without Jesus in my life it would be twice as bad. I can honestly say, however, that I spent 30 or more years trying to feel Jesus in the yoke with me, but rather than getting rest, I got more and more anxious and weary. I didn’t learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I lost my passion, my faith, and I just eventually gave up. I didn’t give up on the ideals, just on every reaching them. And that is a true disappointment, because I still love and turn to Jesus for guidance, especially as the Deadpools of the world become so-called heroes. I still want to be like that image of compassion and wisdom evoked by Jesus. For those who are interested I will be posting a longer account of my spiritual journey in the next few months.
Meekness is, for the most part, a virtue associated with Jesus. Moses, also, was known for his meekness and it is fair to say that Jesus was continuing a tradition from his culture, one in which leaders were measured by their deference to God. Moses was said to be the meekest man on earth (Numbers 12:3). Meekness in Moses’ case describes someone who had endured hardship (affliction and poverty) and therefore was humble, trusting God more than his own abilities or strengths.
The best reference I found on how to develop meekness is Ten Strategies For Cultivating Meekness by Pastor Colin Smith.
Reading Pastor Smith’s sermon it felt good to be reminded of my spiritual tradition’s sound advice on being meek. And while I agree with all 10 points in the Christian Strategy outlined by Pastor Smith, there are gaps in formulating a compelling idea to shoot for.
Firstly, the degree to which the strategies are steeped in Christian culture is problematic. I’ve rephrased the strategies in my own word.
- Keep things in perspective, especially your own importance.
- Focus on the good stuff.
- Remember your own privileges and unearned pardons.
- Don’t jump to conclusions. Slow the bus down.
- Don’t be friends with angry people.
- Feel what others feel and be happy for their good fortune, even if you don’t share it.
- Don’t define people as enemies or circumstances as bad.
- Study the character of Jesus and practice it.
- Realize meekness is what brings unearned wealth.
- Seek the highest wisdom possible.
The trouble is, sermons like this seldom explain enough. I want to know what I actually need to do to deal with my anger in a healthy way. I want to know how to move past my exaggerated need for esteem.
Most of my life I’ve practiced Christian meekness. Meekness is good. Bring back meekness! But meekness doesn’t bring peace. The peace is supposed to come from God, but what happens when your understanding of, and relationship with, God shifts, changes, morphs, or even ends?
As I lost my fundamentalism I lost faith in meekness. But that was a good thing, because my understanding of meekness was wrapped up in my self-sacrifice schema. As I learned to give myself as much attention and compassion as I gave others, as I learned to be more assertive and centered, and as I slowly developed health boundaries, I began to see the deeper and more valuable role of meekness in the Christian world view.
I never lost sight of the cultural values of Christianity. Like Jordan Peterson, Jean Vanier, Margaret Visser, and many others, I continue to value Christianity’s robust scope. With it’s focus on guilt and forgiveness, rather than honour and shame; with it’s uncovering of memetic desires, it remains one of the most advanced systems of ethics and development available.
Unfortunately Christians in general do not move past the Blue and Orange stages of development. Meekness remains an appendix-like protrusion on the digestive tract of doctrine and dogma. Most of us who have gone through the painful process of developing into the higher stages exercise very little influence on the course of Christian history. We continue to search for answers wherever they may be found. Having lost our certainty we lose our evangelical fervor.
Having lost our certainty we lose our evangelical fervor.
The Stoic Tradition
The English word “meek” has unfortunate roots – sharing a similar etymology with muck, mucus, and mold. 1 I think a better way of saying what meekness is really all about is “even-tempered.”
Stoics called it apatheia. It meant freedom from passions. And the stoics defined passions as “intense emotional reaction or a strong sense of enthusiasm or engagement.” according to Michel Daw. Apatheia was the chief component for stoics in the flourishing life (another archaic Greek word ataraxia had a similar but slightly different meaning for the Epicurians).
Apatheia is not elimination or repression of passions, as modern people tend to stereotype stoics (and vulcans), but instead the ability to discern which emotions are instinctual and which are highly influenced by out perceptions and thoughts.
Stoicism is a set of ideas and practices to change our perceptions of events that evoke emotional reactions. A way to exercise control in the areas of life we have control over.
Apatheia, far from being a fancy word for apathy, is about “equanimity in the face of what the world throws at us,” according to the IEP.
How Did the Stoics Develop and Maintain Apatheia?
The stoics achieved Apatheia by practicing the virtues. For the stoics that meant throwing yourself into public service and honing the skills of the mind. I am currently (still) working my way through The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy by Donald Robertson, and Stoicism and Emotion by Margaret R. Graver. These are the best and most practical guides I have yet found for putting into practice the ancient philosophy.
The Daoist Tradition
I first discovered Wu Wei and De when doing research for my wabi sabi books. Edward Slingerland’s Trying Not to Try is the most readable work I have found on the topic.
“Wu wei refers to the cultivation of a state of being in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world. It is a kind of “going with the flow” that is characterized by great ease and awake-ness, in which–without even trying–we’re able to respond perfectly to whatever situations arise.” – Elizabeth Reninger
De is a state of non-arrogant confidence that allows a person to live wu wei. “De is radiance that others can detect, and it serves as an outward signal that one is in wu-wei. … For rulers and others involved in poltical life, de had a powerful, seemingly magical effect on those around them, allowing them to spread political order in an instantaneous fashion. They don’t have to issue threats or offer rewards, because people simply want to obey them.” – Eward Sligerland, Trying not to Try.
As Slingerland points out, the problem is in trying. When we try to be spontaneous and effortless not only are we contradicting ourselves (trying to do no trying) but it doesn’t really work. In a strange way de is achieved through a process of trying out trying, and eventually backing off trying to such a degree that most of the effort is in noticing and following a long-trained intuition.
This understanding influenced Zen with it’s emphasis on “just sitting.” In the end, the solution seems similar to the one identified by the the stoics. Throw yourself into public life, commit yourself to the Way, perpetuate the institutions that keep us from tribalism, keep in mind the virtues you have been taught (especially cooperation), and you will eventually achieve de.
I will be surprised if anyone actually read this far. 3170 words is a lot! I was going to talk about Tibetan Buddhism too, but maybe another time. I haven’t decided what term to use for this quality I wish to develop. Meekness and Apatheia have too many negative connotations. Weak and apathetic – a hard sell.
De doesn’t sound like a word in English but Wu wei might be a possibility. It has a certain onomatopoeia going for it. Non-doing or no action is also a hard sell, so I don’t know, perhaps I need to keep looking. If anyone does make it this far, I would be open to your suggestions for an alternative.
I want to create a vision that will inspire me. Something not too esoteric, not too philosophical or heady. Perhaps story is the answer, a story of someone who achieves wi wei in the course of some adventure.
1. From the Houghton Mifflin Canadian Dictionary:
Meek (mek) adj. meeker, meekest. 1. Showing patience and humility; long-suffering. 2. Easily imposed upon; submissive; spineless: “He was the meekest of his sex, the mildest of little man.” (Dickens) 3. Archaic. Kind, gentle “I am meek and gentle with these butchers.” (Shakespeare) – see synonym at humble. [Middle English mek, meoc. from Old Norse with mjerkr, soft. see Meug-2 in appendix.] – meekly adv.
Meug-2 (Enlarged from meu-, damp.) slimy, slippery; with derivatives referring to various wet or slimy substances and conditions. 1. Nasalized from *meung in Latin Mugere, to blow the nose: Emunctory. 2. Possibly Germanic *9s)mug-, reffing to wetness and also to figurative slipperiness: a. Old English smok, shirt: SMOCK; b. Middle German smuck, “clothing,” adornment, jewel: schuck; c. Old Norse mugga, drizzle: MUGGY; d. Low German smukkelen and Duthch smokkelen, to smuggle (<“to slip contraband through”) SMUGGLE; a. Middle Low German Smucken, to adorn (<“to make sleek”) MUG; f. Old Norse Mygla, mold, mildew; MOLD2. 3. Germanic *meuk- in a. Old Norse myki, mykr, muck: MIDDEN, MUCK; b. Old Norse mjukr, soft: MEEK. 4 Fariant form *meuk- in Latin mucus, MOIST, (MUCILAGE), (MUCO-), MUCUS, (MUSTY). 5. Sero-grade varient form *muk- in: a Greek mukes, fungus, mushroom: _MYCETE, MYCO-, STEPTYMYCIN; b. sufficed form *muk-so- in Greek Muxa, mucus, lamp wick (<“nozzle of a lamp,” <“nos-tril”): MATCH2, MYXO-. [POR. 2 meug-744]
2. 1828 Webster’s Dictionary:
MEEK, a. [L. mucus; Eng. mucilage; Heb. to melt.]
- Mild of temper; soft; gentle; not easily provoked or irritated; yielding; given to forbearance under injuries. Now the man Moses was very meek, above all men. Num.12.
- Appropriately, humble, in an evangelical sense; submissive to the divine will; not proud, self-sufficient or refractory; not peevish and apt to complain of divine dispensations.
Greek: πραΰς (praǘs) soft, gentle, tame, mild.
Featured image of Francis of Assisi by Sarah Richter: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sarowen/
5 thoughts on “Meekness,Wu-wei, and De”
I found this enlightening and thoughtful.I didn’t know much about what meekness means except it seems unpopular nowadays.Thank you,Katherine
Thanks Katherine, I’m glad to hear that you got something out of it. It is a challenging concept to talk about and develop in oneself. Thank you for reading.
I DID read right through all your article on Meekness , Wu-wei and De.
And I’m just stunned still with gratitude that you can give words and
depth to a Christian journey I ( and I believe many others) share.
It’s a cold, foggy morning here in Quebec…but the fog lifts in the heart
and I’m going to sit by the stream. I believe the word gratitude has the same root as
grace, and Thanksgiving ,which was last weekend, is ‘jour des graces’ here in
Quebec . So I will close with -Merci /Thank you from the East coast to the West.
Maria ( from Montreal)
PS – I look forward to the post with more on your spiritual journey.
Hi Maria, your comment comes at a good time. I’ve re-read this post just now and am surprised to find I still feel good about it almost 2 years after I wrote it. My own life continues to offer challenges to the principles of meekness, but I take encouragement from your words. I need to know that others share these values. I also take your PS to heart, and will renew my commitment to share my own story. Merci and blessings to you!